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Obama doesn’t travel light – even on vacation

Glen Johnson
Obama doesn’t travel light – even on vacation
President Barack Obama pauses while playing golf with White House Trip Director Marvin Nicholson at the Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, Mass. on Martha’s Vineyard, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2010. The president is vacationing on the island with his family. (Photo: AP /Steven Senne)

VINEYARD HAVEN, Massachusetts — President Barack Obama had a simple task for his first morning on vacation: shoot over to a Martha’s Vineyard bookstore to fill out his daughters’ summer reading list and grab himself a novel.

Easier said than done.

His sports utility vehicle, part of a 20-vehicle motorcade, passed through a cordon of Massachusetts State Police motorcycle officers, in a protective cocoon of Secret Service agents. Tagging along for the quick trip Friday were White House communications trucks, an ambulance and two vans full of reporters and photographers.

It was the same drill Saturday when he went to the beach for a picnic lunch with his family.

This may be downtime for Obama, but like all modern presidents, celebrities and some wannabes, he must move about with a not insignificant entourage. It includes security officers and their array of arms, as well as advisers, friends in and out of politics, and a cook who doubles as a golfing buddy.

“They all have it and they all hate it,” said Ron Kaufman, political director for former President George H.W. Bush. “Every president that I know has been accused of taking off too much time and ignoring the responsibilities of their job. But the truth is, they never get away from it.”

Mike McCurry, press secretary for former President Bill Clinton, said: “It is literally true that ever since World War II, the president can be commander in chief wherever he goes. That’s why you have that communications truck go everywhere he goes.”

Obama aides said before the Massachusetts trip that the president would travel light, with a skeleton staff. Accompanying him on Air Force One were senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who has her own house on the island getaway, and his counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan.

When they landed on Cape Cod, Obama transferred to Marine One, the presidential helicopter, while his staff and reporters raced to a pair of Marine Corps CH-53 helicopters. Other Blackhawk helicopters, painted identical to Marine One, flew with Obama’s as decoy aircraft. A State Police chopper swept over the route to Martha’s Vineyard Airport before the president passed overhead.

Brennan, who said he wanted to give the president his space while on vacation, briefed Obama on national security issues during the first day on the trip. Brennan also said he would rely on the phone and presidential BlackBerry to provide other updates not requiring a visit to Blue Heron Farm, the 30-acre property the Obama family was using for the second consecutive year.

“Communication systems are very robust. We can move information at the speed of light,” said Brennan. “If there were to be some type of event that would require immediate engagement with the president, I am certain I can do it as quickly as I could do back in Washington.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was taking his own vacation during the president’s 10-day break. Other top aides, including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and political strategist David Axelrod, were nowhere in sight.

Deputy press secretary Bill Burton was among the traveling party. In a nod to the more casual tone, he brought along his wife, but Burton traded his island wear for a business suit as he delivered the first of what he expected to be several media briefings.

He took care to also say the president was getting updates on economic issues, even if he wasn’t from a crowd of aides in their usual morning Oval Office session.

“His economic team back in Washington is sending on memos and important updates on what’s happening on the economy as they happen,” Burton said. “While he’s here, he’ll, of course, pick up the phone and call members of his economic team.”

When he does step away from “the office,” Obama is never alone. Besides Jarrett, a family friend before she was an employee, the president has been joined again on vacation by a longtime Chicago pal, Eric Whitaker.

He golfed with Obama on Friday, in a foursome that also included South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, and Marvin Nicholson, who oversees Obama’s entourage as White House trip director.

Another expected golfing partner is Sam Kass, a White House chef and the Obama family’s former personal cook. Besides helping first lady Michelle Obama conceive and plant a White House garden, he recently was named a senior policy adviser on healthy initiatives.

Kass, too, was part of the presidential entourage, with the unique ability to don several hats: chef’s toque or a golf visor.

Associated Press